The lessons learned from tonight’s preseason game between the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints will ultimately affect the jobs of 37 players for each team.
Tonight’s game will give the Patriots, as well as every other NFL team, the first bits of knowledge necessary to evaluate players’s capabilities in live action. So while fans may be clamoring to see Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and Vince Wilfork, the reality is this is an audition for players in the margin, many of whom have a long shot of making the team. Those players will get the bulk of tonight’s snaps. Those are the players whose jobs are on the line.
Here’s a look at tonight’s game, with some story lines to watch for.
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.
Records: Patriots 0-0 (Finished last season 13-3, AFC champions); Saints 0-0 (Finished last season 13-3, NFC South champions).
TV/Radio info: WBZ-TV Ch. 4 (Don Criqui, Randy Cross); 98.5-FM The Sports Hub (Gil Santos, Scott Zolak).
Projected starting lineups:
Based on information distributed to the media, practice observations, and injuries for each team.
Patriots offense: WR Wes Welker, LT Nate Solder, LG Ryan Wendell, C Dan Koppen, RG Dan Connolly, RT Marcus Cannon, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Brandon Lloyd, QB Tom Brady, RB Stevan Ridley, TE Aaron Hernandez.
Patriots defense: NT Vince Wilfork DT Kyle Love, RDE Chandler Jones, LB/DE Ron Ninkovich, LB Jerod Mayo, LB Dont’a Hightower, LB Dane Fletcher, CB Devin McCourty, CB Kyle Arrington, S Steve Gregory, S Patrick Chung.
Saints offense: WR Marques Colston, LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Ben Grubbs, C Brian de la Puente, RG Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief, TE Jimmy Graham, WR Devery Henderson, QB Drew Brees, FB Jed Collins, RB Pierre Thomas
Saints defense: LDE Cameron Jordan, NT Brodrick Bunkley, DT Sedrick Ellis, RDE Will Smith, SLB Scott Shanle, MLB Curtis Lofton, WLB David Hawthorne, LCB Jabari Greer, SS Roman Harper, FS Malcolm Jenkins, RCB Patrick Robinson.
O-line worries? — The Patriots offensive line is still without two of its penciled-in starters in Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer. Brian Waters also continues to be absent. Young tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon will take the field with veterans Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, and Ryan Wendell. The team has shuffled — and re-shuffled — its lineup, but now is the time for the players to show what they can do. If joint practices are any indication of talent, it will be interesting to see who quickly falls into coach Bill Belichick’s doghouse and who calms the team’s worries up front.
Rookie development — Pay close attention to rookie safety Tavon Wilson. He’s had an up-and-down training camp, and it’ll be interesting to see how he has developed over time and how that translates to his first game action. Rookies Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones will also have intriguing debuts. Hightower will likely shift back and forth from the strongside linebacker spot to middle linebacker. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the different positions. It would be nice to see if Jones shows off that strength he’s built up since minicamp in June. But moreso, it’ll be interesting to see if the Patriots utilize him in the elephant role, standing up as much as playing in a three-point stance.
Ryan Mallett’s reps — The Patriots have characterized backup quarterback Ryan Mallett as having a competition with Brian Hoyer. However, it’s been clear in camp that Hoyer is firmly the team’s No. 2 quarterback. On Tuesday, when the Patriots and Saints were holding joint practices for the first time and going full speed in 11-on-11s, Mallett didn’t come off well in his one rep, underthrowing a receiver. He’ll get plenty of opportunities to show the Saints what he can do tonight to make up for it. That’ll give us all an opportunity to see if the hesitation he has shown throughout camp can be resolved or may become a larger issue in his development.
How will the secondary look? — This is still one of the most sensitive areas for the Patriots, being that last year the team’s defense ranked 31st in the NFL, largely because of its decimated secondary. Now, the team gets a chance to see how Ras-I Dowling looks healthy, how the communication between free agent signee Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung works, and whether or not Devin McCourty can regain his Pro Bowl form. There’s no better test than Drew Brees and the Saints, even if it’s only for a couple of series.
Who will surprise us? — If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on rookie defensive end Justin Francis (No. 68 defense). He’s been having a great camp and there’s a strong expectation that he will do well and eventually make this team. Keep an eye out for him.
What will you be looking for? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts on tonight’s game.
Update (2:44 p.m.): 98.5-FM The Sports Hub has confirmed that Scott Zolak will be making his debut as the color commentator on tonight’s broadcast. At the time of the Patriots-Saints preseason game release, his name was omitted.